Friday, December 31, 2010

Goodbye, 2010

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This year has simply came and went in a wink of an eye. This must be how my cat, Obama aka Prootsie (see photo above) feels like. From the moment I signed on the job at the Bar Council in October 2009, days have been passing by at the speed of 1 cat year, especially during the night on every weekday. Waking up in the morning, cursing and wondering where the night had gone, seem to be a favourite 2010 past time (I bet that it’s so popular that it’ll be brought forward to 2011).

I’ve managed to keep myself extremely busy this year and I think I may have compensated for the period of time when I stayed idle from 2005-2008. This year has been indeed fruitful and well-lived. Any regrets? None whatsoever, except for not seizing enough moments, if there were any that went completely unnoticed.

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Apart from managing the MyConstitution Campaign (if you haven’t heard of  this yet, this is your last chance to get involved in the biggest phenomenon to hit Malaysia since the government announced the 1Malaysia campaign. The MyConstitution Campaign is expected to wind down  after March 2011), I’ve been writing a lot for The Malaysian Insider and Loyar Burok.

Travelling used to be my most favourite thing to do but since work has been occupying most of my time and money has been rather tight this year, I have turned to writing as a source of inspiration and a form of meditation. This year, it has become my most favourite thing to do when I’m not coordinating events, attending an event, picking up boxes of Rakyat Guides booklets from Taman Ukay, Ulu Klang, or trying to comprehend what are the new amendments made to the Criminal Procedure Code (they’re not necessarily in that order).

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Above: A sample of a MyConstitution Campaign Rakyat Guides booklet. The 6-panel cardboard paper is folded to form a small pocket-sized “Luxe Travel Guide”-like booklet slipped into a plastic cover that can be used as a self-defence weapon due to its sharp skin-grazing capabilities. I’ve got tonnes of scars on my hands as proof of this.

My second most favourite thing to do is photography. It was only this year when I first started using the manual mode of my Canon DSLR camera to take pictures. I must say that the results have been most gratifying. Not all the pictures I’ve taken are any good but I think there may be some that show potential (well, to me anyway and any bona fide photographer may disagree).

Here are some of my favourite photos:

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Yogya

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Photos above:

1. At the Rally for Sanity, Gateway Arch, St. Louis, USA   2. At Arlington Cemetery, USA  3, 4 & 5. At the St. Louis Rams Vs. San Diego Charges game, Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis, USA   6. At Yogyakarta city, Indonesia    7. At Yogyakarta Market, Indonesia  8. At St. Louis Zoo, USA  9. At St. Louis Zoo, USA

This year has been special too because I was given the opportunity to travel to the United States of America for 6 weeks. Being selected for the Legislative Fellows Programme (LFP) under the American Council for Young Political had been surreal and I am grateful for such a priceless experience.

After working for more than a year in Malaysia, I’ve had a difficult time coming to terms with how messed up the country is.  I was utterly disappointed, demotivated and frustrated with the government, the public and private service sector and just basically the mentality of Malaysians in general. There were times when all I did was fight with almost anyone who could or would not do their jobs properly.

Being in America provided me with a breath of fresh air. I met many people who displayed good leadership and professionalism and I was inspired. I think I came home a different person. I became more eager to take on more leadership role and begin to think more deeply about starting a project on my own.

As a summary, here are some of my most and least favourite things in 2010.

Favourites:

1. MyConstitution Campaign

2. Writing

3. Photography

4. Loyar Burok

5. Friendships I’ve made through MyConstitution Campaign and LFP

Least favourites:

1. Weight gain

2. IKEA (am boycotting the world’s worst international franchise for their horrendous and appalling service)

3. Michael M (probably one of the most loathsome people I’ve met this decade)

4. Did not finish even a book

5. Not seeing more people

Biggest achievment:

1. Quit smoking since April 2010

Hopes for 2011:

1. Lose 17kg

2. Start my own project

3. Travel more (maybe to the North Pole, if I’m lucky)

4. Take better photos

5. Read more

6. Write better

7. See more people

8. Do something new and go crazy

HAPPY NEW YEAR ALL and HELLO 2011.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The chronicle of 2011’s resolution [Part 1] – Be phat and not fat!

This is a new series chronicling my journey towards looking fab by the end of 2011 (well, preferably before the year ends but who am I kidding, right?).

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I was uncertain whether I should even blog about this but as an afterthought, if it’s going to humiliate me into achieving my resolution, why not?

Life has been rather wonderful for the year that is 2010. I’m working on an exciting project, I’ve been writing regularly, I’ve got a husband who finally took to keeping things clean in the house and feeding me well (maybe a bit too well) and above all, I’ve got a beautiful and lovely cat that keeps growing on me.

It would look as if life couldn’t get any better, right? Well, nuh-ah - WRONG!

Everything seems well except for my weight that is intent on making my life miserable and I’m not just talking about me being vain. I’m talking about me being utterly uncomfortable with my body weight and losing my self-esteem as a result of it. I have refused dinner invitations from friends whom I haven’t met awhile because I am too ashamed to meet them. I can’t bend over to tie my shoe laces because my belly gets in the way. I am also getting his horrible image of me not waking up in the morning because my heart has been working overtime without receiving any gratitude or TLC and  finally decides to give up on me. Only by then, everything would be too late.

So, why this resolution? Seems a bit too cliché and fluff, no? This is the sad part. I can do the whole giving up smoking and I’m pretty sure I can do the giving up drinking as well. But, giving up oily, deep fried and fatty food, consisting of all sorts of chemical, sugar, salt and other poisons that make them taste soooo good is going to be the toughest thing I would ever have to do. Damn those skinny chicks who can eat whatever they want!

My weight has fluctuated so much over the past few years. My fittest form was when I was in secondary school while I was doing ballet as a serious form of extra-curricular activity, my university years when I would frequent the local student union disco nights at least twice a week and dance all the English custard off and of course when I was starved in countries like Timor Leste and Afghanistan. I weighed around 50 – 55 kg then. Now, I must weigh more than 65 77 kg  (I finally weighed myself at the strike of 12am on 1 Jan 2011) as I haven’t been able to weigh myself for fear I’ll keel over from fright and die before I get to fit into a respectable dress size again.

So, moment of desperation calls for desperate measure. Two friends of mine, E, V and I have decided to have a pact. We’re going to try to  lose 1 kg for each month of 2011. We’ll be monitoring our weight and the person who does not stick to the bargain for that month will pay RM50. Seeing how stingy I am, I think it’ll motivate me unless I get really depressed and start going on a junk binge and adopt a to- hell-with-life attitude.

I don’t know how I’m going to do this because I’m feeling hungry again. Would I be able to resist the temptation of eating my favourite fast food of all time? As my friend V would say, “That’s your internal problem. We’re not interested about how each of us do this or what kinda problems we have. We’re only concerned about the result, ok?” Yeah, so much for moral support, pal.

So if you’re a friend, I beg of you not to be polite to me about my weight. Be tough and yet encouraging and supportive of my 2011’s resolution so that I can be phat again!

The next time I blog about this, let’s hope I am not RM50 poorer.

Monday, December 27, 2010

It must get better

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 25 December 2010 and then Loyar Burok on 27 December 2010.

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I am heterosexual and if I have had more than one sexual relationship, I’d be called a shameless slut. 

If I were a Muslim, heterosexual and have pre-marital sex with my long-term boyfriend, I’d be arrested, persecuted and labelled a sinful and bad Muslim. 

If I am homosexual, I’d be blamed for spreading HIV/AIDS. 

If I were Muslim and homosexual, I might as well be dead because this would be what many of my Muslim brothers and sisters would want me to be — non-existent. 

The point I’m trying to make is homosexuals are not alone when it comes to receiving unwanted, cruel and malicious remarks and punishments, but they do bear the worst of it, especially if they’re Muslims. 

If you’re part of the activist circle in Kuala Lumpur or know someone who is part of the circle, you’ll know the “Seksualiti Merdeka movement” led by several brave and no doubt amazing individuals. These individuals are brave because they confront and embrace their sexuality instead of hiding behind a facade. 

They’re amazing because they do something about defending and promoting their rights to alternative sexual lifestyles, rather than bitch within their own circle of like-minded friends and wait for society to accept them for who they are. 

One recent project that has attracted a lot of attention is the “It gets better in Malaysia” videos. These series of short videos feature several individuals who talk about their experiences as homosexuals in Malaysia. 

This is not an original initiative as it is very much inspired by a similar campaign in the United States aimed at combating gay teenage suicide as a result of bullying in schools. The message is simple. It tries to tell gay teenagers that their lives will get better eventually and hence they should not give up on life. 

I find this campaign very human. It’s not just about promoting or glorifying the rights of lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered persons. It’s about treating and respecting them as human beings who don’t deserve to be bullied and certainly don’t deserve to suffer in silence. 

When children take their own lives simply because they can no longer tolerate the torture they have to endure in school and are unable to find the worth in themselves to continue living, something is fundamentally wrong. It is no longer about LBGT rights. It’s about human rights. 

When Azwan Ismail appeared in one of the videos recently, he was condemned by many people. Some even called for his death. It makes me feel sick and it makes me angry to hear this. It also makes me ask why. Why do we behave as if we have the moral right to pass judgment on someone else who is different from ourselves? 

The truth of the matter is, we constantly hide behind our religions so that we can continue to be lazy thinkers and we try to delude ourselves as a society, that sex is taboo so that we don’t have to deal with any problems related to it. We’re told that sex should be something best kept private, which I can agree with. However, I don’t think we should stop discussing sex or try to censure ourselves by pretending to be an asexual society when we’re not. A Catholic priest will be able to tell you this. 

At the end of the day, those who condemn homosexuality do not realise what huge fools and bigots they make of themselves. They’re foolish because they continue to think that if they don’t talk, see or hear about it, then surely it doesn’t exist. (Thank God for great scientists and philosophers who don’t subscribe to such ludicrous theories.) They’re bigots because they believe in casting the first stone even though they are far from unblemished themselves. It’s as if the more stones they throw, the fewer stones will be left for their own sins. 

Being Malaysian is tough. Well, surely not as tough as an Afghan, Iraqi, Sudanese or Somalian, I hear you say. In a way you’re right but at least these countries don’t try to fool you into believing that they’re so close to being a developed nation, founded on the principles of democracy and respect for human rights. It is tough being a part of a hypocritical nation and anyone who asks me to balik China, you’ve proven my point. 

Afghanistan was once ruled by the Talibans, Muslim hardliners who implemented syariah and hudud laws in the country. These Talibans are also known for their sexual activities with young Afghan boys. They won’t talk about this but they will tell you that they’re defenders of Islam. 

Azwan Ismail did nothing of that sort and if anything, he did the opposite. He is honest, as opposed to those who hide behind their masks. I am sure all homosexuals want to be honest about themselves. Something which all parents should be teaching their children, instead of forcing them to be liars. 

I sincerely believe our country will be better if we start being more honest and less hypocritical. I also believe that this country will be better if we’re governed by leaders who are more honest and less hypocritical. 

We have come to a juncture where things must get better for all of us. I’ll vote for the next politician who starts a campaign about this.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Conversation with my father

This article was first published at The Malaysian Insider on 19 December 2010

Generation

“I notice that you have a weakness. Do you want to know what it is?”

“Yes, sure,” I said with a voice that quivered slightly due to uncertainty and nerve. It was the same kind of uncertainty and nerve when the doctor asks whether I would like to know the result of my pap smear.

It was the first time in my life when my father expressed the need to reveal to me what he really thought of me. It was momentous and yet nerve-wrecking at the same time. I never thought I could do anything wrong in his eyes and I was convinced that I had his full confidence.

Evidently, I was wrong.

I was told that I was too intolerant and that I could never allow other people to assert their authority over me. These words were said with a heavy heart. I could tell it wasn’t easy for my father to say them to me. Nevertheless, I still believe those were the harshest words he has ever uttered to me and I have a good feeling that they would continue to haunt me for a long time.

Now, my father has his own reasons for telling me that. I know what those reasons are and as he has rightly pointed out, I am unwilling to accept the authority of his words. What hurt the most was knowing how much he has misunderstood my character and how unjust his judgment of me was. Having a strong viewpoint is perceived as rudeness and having courage or guts to go against convention is regarded as rebellion, or sometimes as an easy means of escaping responsibilities.

For as long as my father can remember, I had been an obedient child who subsequently turned “difficult” as soon as I became a teenager and then just simply “unhappy” as an adult. He could not understand why I felt the need to be “rude” to my tyrannical teacher or quit my job when my employer could not care less about my welfare. He simply could not understand why I could not be one of those individuals who settle for a well-paying job and stop being unhappy about every injustice that confronts me.

Father and child

“What do you really want to do in life? What do you want to achieve?” I could see he wanted to know and he wanted to understand.

Such straightforward questions and yet the answers are never as such. I told him that I want to help change things in the country and help to change the mindsets of the people here. I told him that people need to be empowered to choose what’s best for them and that includes the government.

Tears started pouring down my face as I told him about all the wrong-doings that are plaguing the country and how things desperately need to change. I then realised that I had never cried that way before in front of my father. I was surprised and embarrassed by my vulnerability and the inability to control my emotion.

He in turn, looked bewildered and old.

I told him that things are changing and there are many young Malaysians who want to do something to bring about change to the country. I want to be a part of them.

He said I am too naïve and idealistic. He said I would be disappointed when I realise that this is not just a romantic idea of an heroic act. He said he is a lot older than I am and I should trust him that from his own experience, many young people start off with the purest of all intentions but as soon as the going gets tough, they will learn that reality creates stains in life. He said that sooner or later, everyone turns cynical and they will eventually give up.

I am uncertain whether he was being cynical, realistic or simply attempting to protect me from getting disappointed.

I told him that I am fully aware that this world is not a bed of roses and I think I have seen enough of suffering to accept that. What I could not accept is when people stop knowing how to differentiate between right and wrong and choose to be indifferent instead.

He said he couldn’t understand why young people have such silly notions these days. When he was young, all he could think of was to secure a decent living.

And I thank you for that. It’s because of you that I am able to have all this silly notions,” I said to him.

“You wonder why young people are abandoning lucrative careers for human rights and politics? Could it be because of the opportunity and privilege they now have to focus on something else other than bread and butter issues, as results of improved economic condition provided by their parents? Isn’t that a good thing?” I added.

“And that’s where the Chinese is wise. There is a saying that a family’s wealth does not go beyond the third generation,” my father retorted.

“In order for a country and its people to prosper, I think we need two types of people. Those like you who build the country’s economy and those like us who want to see a more accountable and transparent government that protects human rights. I don’t think you can have one without the other. Besides, can one family’s wealth ever match a positive change brought upon millions of people?” I asked in exasperation.

When I arrived home that night, I was resentful of my father. I resented him for not understanding who I am as a person. I resented him for feeling disappointed with me when I thought he would be proud instead. Above all, I resented the fact that he wished for me to be someone I am not. I also wish that as a father, he had taught me to be strong and to never allow others to assert their authority or power over me simply because I deserve better.

My husband told me that I should try to understand that my father lives in a different generation; a generation where his father did not have the means to give him what he gave us. A generation where their biggest enemies were poverty and ignorance, but it is always easier for human beings to survive ignorance and not poverty. Now, most of us just live in ignorance and we forget how it feels like to be poor.

Perhaps my husband is right but how do you then explain another young person who told me I am too idealistic for my own good? Do we still have hope?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Give without asking

Please give

I probably have dozens of pet peeves but there is one in particular which gets on my nerves more often than others.

I absolutely detest it when someone asks my opinion whether there is a need to exercise an act of charity or generosity on others. I also detest it when someone asks me whether I would like to participate in an act of charity or generosity towards others.

Some examples:

Should I tip the waiter/waitress?

Do you think I should buy so-and-so a gift since so-and-so has been such a good host to you?

Do you want to chip in some money so that we can buy some food for the beggar who keeps coming to our table?

Am I cheap for feeling annoyed about this? Absolutely, yes but I think it makes the person asking my opinion or contribution even cheaper, and not to mention insensitive.

My take is, if you really want to tip the waiter/waitress, just bloody do it. Why would you need my approval? As long as the tip comes from your pocket, it’s your prerogative but please don’t try to make me feel bad by asking for my opinion because it makes me the bad person if I don’t think the waiter/waitress deserves to be tipped. (And if you can’t make such a simple decision on your own, you probably don’t understand the concept of tipping.)

By asking me whether you should buy something for someone who has been nice to me is just way out of line and you may have already offended many other people in your life. I would prefer it if you ask me whether I would like to consider showing my appreciation to that someone by giving him/her a gift myself. Don’t try to make me feel and look bad by making yourself look good.

It’s not that I don’t want to part with the little money that is needed to make a beggar happy, I just think it’s something that should come from me. If you want to be charitable, go ahead. Yay! Kudos to you but don’t ask. Just do it and leave me and my money out of it because it may be something you feel strongly about, it doesn’t mean I feel the same way. Plus, always remember that people contribute in different ways and it doesn’t always have to be in monetary form.

So, if you’re really hot on the giving, then don’t ask and don’t tell.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Taking charge

GoAs I sat eating my lunch at a fast food outlet, I couldn't help but felt annoyed with this boisterous  boy not more than 3 running amok at the counter. He was a curious little thing; poking around and trying to get his fingers on everything, including unsuspecting adults waiting in line.  I was quite sure I was not the only one getting annoyed.

I felt sorry for the embarrassed young mother who tried to calm him down. Instead of earning her son's respect, she received continuous kicks from the unrelenting child. 

In the end, she gave up.

As I sat there, I thought about all the possible ways of dealing with the situation, if I were the mother. I must confess that giving the child a good spanking was one of them.

The woman looked relieved when she finally reached the front of the counter. She probably thought her ordeal would end soon once the child got distracted by French fries or a sundae. Instead, I watched him abandoned her and walked towards me.

With all the energy he had, he dragged a chair all the way to the counter. Once the chair was parked securely by his mother, he pushed himself up and stood shoulder to shoulder with her. The woman looked mortified as soon as she realised what happened and proceeded to reprimand him.

I don't know what it was but my initial impression of the boy changed. I was amazed to see how he took charge of his life; he wanted to reach up to be able to see something way above his eye level and he didn't ask for help nor wait for help to come. He just went for what he thought would help him accomplish what he wanted, albeit unappreciated.

I then began to think about all the possible things this boy can achieve when he becomes an adult.

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If you were the mother, would you have reprimanded the child for dragging the chair?

As a mother, how do you "discipline" your child without compromising his/her self-esteem to take initiatives and take charge of things?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Joe is smokin’!

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Above: Smoking Joe’s signature barbecued pork ribs with beans and potato salad on the sides.

How do you like your barbecued ribs?

I like mine meaty yet tender, slightly burnt and caramelised on the outside but moist on the inside. Above all, it should have that smoky taste and smell.

When I first saw my plate of barbecued ribs at Smoking Joe’s, I was not convinced that they would be anything but dry and hard to chew on. I also didn’t like how they were covered with what looked like dried oregano.

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Well, I was pleasantly surprised when I finally bit into the rib. The meat was not only tasty, it was so tender that it could easily fall off the bone with one gentle gnaw. The herbs on it were in fact, Smoking Joe’s very own signature St. Louis rub mix which contains a secret ingredient. The mix was salty, aromatic, slightly hot and tangy. It was so good that Joe the owner, uses it  liberally on almost all his dishes. Customers can even buy them at the restaurants. I brought mine home with Joe’s signature on it and have been using them to spice up my grilled meat.

Left: A customer holding Smoking Joe’s special seasoning mix

 

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Above: (l) The feast we had at Smoking Joe’s, (m) Pulled pork, (r) The gooey and yummy macaroni and cheese

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Above: (l) Joe giving us his personal attention (m) Roast turkey & beef briskets (r) Side dishes and salads

Smoking Joe’s is the kind of restaurant that serves simple but hearty American food. My kind of comfort food with lots of meat, mash potatoes, coleslaws, beans, creamy soup and macaroni and cheese. If you’re concerned about your waistline, fear not because it also serves hearty portions of lean turkey meat and beef brisket on a generous bed of salad leaves.

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The other thing which I liked about the menu was the fresh potato crisps sprinkled with Smoking Joe’s signature mix. Unlike the usual Lays’ potato crisps, these were only slightly thicker, not as crispy that it felt artificial and you can really  tell that they were made of real potatoes. I wouldn’t trust those bags of potato crisps that claim they’re baked without preservatives anymore.

The ambience was nice and at first I thought the place was a bit too classy for what it serves. One would not have guessed that such a tastefully decorated restaurant would be serving normal regular American food. But again, what would I know since I had only gone to Pappy’s Smokehouse for barbecued ribs before?

It was a refreshing change from the usual loud and rowdy restaurants such as Pappy’s where customers are forced to line up to get their orders before being seated on uncomfortable wooden benches and then pressured into chowing down their food as quickly as possible in order to give the table up for the next customer. Smoking Joe’s is all about comfort, style and good value for money because believe it or not, the food cost almost the same as Pappy’s, if not less.

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Above: Joe showing us the new logo for his chain in Jakarta.

Left: What did I tell ya? Ain’t Joe smokin’?

For real and simple American food, this is as good as it gets. It’s so good that Smoking Joe’s is going international by opening a new chain in Jakarta, Indonesia next year!

I wish Joe all the best and hope I’ll get to dine in his restaurant in Kuala Lumpur one day.

 

 

 

Smoking Joe’s is situated at:

1901 Washington Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri, US.

For more information, you can check out its website here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why we should vote

This was first published on The Malaysian Insider on 28 November 2010.

IMG_0185Democracy is a powerful notion.

It allows; an octogenarian black woman, a single-mother working on double shifts, a 40 year-old unemployed college drop-out, a life-saving surgeon, a homeless war veteran with one arm, a 19 year-old exchange student in Europe, a young beautiful stripper, Joe the gay plumber and Mary the unhappy housewife; to choose who they want to run their country.

It is perhaps the only rare time when every single person, who has not relinquished his or her civil and political rights, will ever be treated equally. Think about it: is there any other time when everyone’s voices are valued and measured in the same manner regardless of their socio-economic background? And because of this power and the sanctity of it, the State will try its best to provide each and everyone the means to exercise this inalienable right to vote.

Photo above: Robin Carnahan, a Democrat candidate for the Missouri State House of Representatives lost in the recent Mid-Term election.

Democracy can be a dangerous notion.

In order to wipe out competition; political opponents, women candidates and pro-democratic mullahs are intimidated or killed. Women who decide to shed their proverbial and literal burqas in order to have their photographs laminated on their voter registration cards are being threatened to death or killed.

For the lucky ones who manage to emerge unscathed, they will walk miles and miles to the polling stations in the harsh winter climate wearing only inferior Croc-style shoes on their freezing feet and determination on their faces already showing signs of pre-mature aging.

I was fortunate enough to witness how democracy was carried out in the United States of America (USA) and Afghanistan. Although their spirits are as different as night and day, the essence of the notion remains the same. Hence, for the precise reason that democracy is such a powerful notion that many Afghans are being persecuted for embracing it. To me, this is the first reason why we should vote.

I love elections. There is nothing more exciting and inspiring than watching regular citizens from any given layer of society share one common belief that each of them has the opportunity to be a part of that intricate fabric that will one day adorn their government.

When I am at a polling station, I am amazed and comforted by the thought that no matter how insignificant one is in the scheme of things, his or her vote will be counted. No matter what the election outcome is, that person’s existence that day has mattered greatly. Sadly, it is too rare to witness such a sense of importance and purpose in regular people throughout our daily lives, but when such opportunity presents itself, it is truly an honour.

When my alarm clock went off at 4:30am on 2 November 2010, I jumped off my bed and was ready in advance of my 5:30am pick-up. John Chasnoff, the Programme Manager for the American Civil Liberties Union for Eastern-Missouri (ACLU, E-M) (insert hyperlink: http://www.aclu-em.org/), pulled up at the entrance of my hotel on South-Jefferson Avenue, St. Louis City, a few minutes after 5:30am.

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Photo above: Volunteers at the legal command centre of St. Louis. It was still dark outside. Polling stations open at 6am in the United States on Election Day.

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Photo above: Finally things got a bit more exciting as the day progressed. Volunteers gathered together to discuss a complaint.

It was still dark and the roads were completely deserted when we arrived at a Reformed Judaism temple serving as the legal command centre for St. Louis’s Voter Protection Programme (insert hyperlink: http://www.advancementproject.org/our-work/voter-protection) that day. The programme was run by Advancement Project with the help of a coalition of non-governmental organisations such as ACLU, National Disability Rights Network, etc.

We were greeted by Denise Lieberman, a civil rights lawyer, who had just arrived at the center with her arms full. I quickly established that she was the team leader as she wasted no time in turning on the lights and coffee machine, setting up the centre, getting someone to pick up assortments of bagels and cream cheeses and organising the volunteers who were beginning to trickle in to the centre.

Most volunteers were lawyers on standby to address complaints of electoral irregularities. The day started off slowly and I was beginning to feel convinced that voters in America do not need protection after all and the existence of such programme was merely a frivolity and not necessity.

Throughout my trip in the USA, I asked some Americans whether electoral fraud is a concern in the country. Most of them smiled politely as if it was the most ridiculous question they had ever heard. According to many, it would be extremely difficult but not impossible, to find someone trying to vote twice since the real challenge is actually to get more Americans to vote. Apparently, the USA is notoriously known for low voter turnout, except for the last Presidential election when throngs of young voters turned up to vote.

What intrigued me the most was the absence of photo ID as a requirement to vote. When I pressed on about how such a system could potentially become a target for abuse and fraud, most of them just shrugged and said, “You just need to trust.” It was my turn to smile politely.

While refilling my third cup of coffee that morning, I stroke up a conversation with another volunteer. According to him, many Americans do not have any form of photo identification since not all Americans possess a passport or driver’s license; the two most common documents with photos attached. As such, it makes it virtually impossible for the electoral law to include photo ID as a requirement to vote. He believes that one of the main reasons why some Americans make this into such a big issue is to prevent certain voters from voting for the opposition.

Sure enough, one of the complaints which subsequently came in that morning was of a polling officer who insisted that a voter must present a photo ID in order to vote. Later on, John and I were sent to a polling station to investigate a complaint against a Republican challenger who was allegedly telling polling officers that the voting machines were faulty and in order for a republican vote to be registered in the system, voters must press the button for the Republican candidate repetitively. Another complaint received was from a blind voter who was concerned that the polling officer might not have read out the whole list of candidates and propositions on the ballot paper.

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Once we determined that the day was not going to get more exciting, John was ready to cast his vote at the polling station where he registered. As long as I am not John’s employer or labour union representative, I was allowed to accompany and assist him at the voting booth, in which I did. Since USA is pretty much a country that seems to rely heavily on trust, nobody bothered to question whether John genuinely needed my assistance in the first place. I also noticed that there was no police presence in most of the polling stations we went. The only time when we actually saw them was when they came to collect the ballot boxes.

 

Photo above: John Chasnoff distributing electoral materials at one of the polling stations. We had to make sure that we were at least 25 feet away from the entrance of the polling station. A voter arrived at the polling station with his granddaughter.

When I talked to John about my experience in Afghanistan as a Civic Education Officer and Political Rights Verification Officer, I was reminded of how different the atmosphere was on election day in Afghanistan. At the end of the day, we would have witnessed or received countless of reports on the number of fraud, intimidation and violence committed all over the country.

I think there are many reasons why some people do not vote. It could be because they have lost faith in the whole democratic process. It could also be because they do not know who to vote for or care enough for what the candidates stand for. It could be because they are not physically or mentally fit to vote. But there are also many who do not vote simply because they think their votes do not matter and election period is just another day for politicians to hurl malicious accusations at each other in public. For these people, here’s news for you.

Democracy is not free but often comes with a huge price. It is not handed down to us on a silver platter but one that is often filled with blood and difficult compromises. For many of us who live in relatively peaceful and politically stable countries, we have become myopic of how our fore parents had fought hard for it many years ago. It would appear that the more democratic a country is, the less interested her people are in her political affairs. For isn’t this the ugly side of human nature that it is when something is taken away from you that you will only come to value it the most?

So vote while you still have the right to do so.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Redefining leadership

This is my contribution for the American Council for Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)’s blog.

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Above: The delegates from the South-East Asia programme at the Legislative Fellows Congress at the US State Department, Washington DC on 8 & 9 November 2010.

When I was thirteen, I stood up in my classroom and told my teacher that I disagreed with his method of punishment, which consisted of drawing on the faces of misbehaving fellow students with a white chalk.

That day, I took several strokes of the cane on my open palm for being disobedient but I left the classroom with my face untouched and a new resolve to end my teacher’s abusive and degrading treatment.  Since then, nobody had their faces drawn on again and my teacher was suspended indefinitely.

That was the only time when I felt like a true leader.

Many years have passed and I often look back and wonder where that thirteen year-old girl has gone.

It is probably no surprise that as an adult, I have continuously chose to work for human rights and humanitarian organisations because of my lack of tolerance of those who disrespect the dignity and integrity of other human beings. However, none of my accomplishments as an adult has come close to what I did when I was thirteen.

Sure, I would often try my best to execute my duties and responsibilities to the best of my abilities and judgments, but I have always allowed others to lead while I stay happily behind the scenes. I would often shy away from social engagements, hide from the spotlight and prefer to live a life that is free from what I assume as cumbersome commitments.

My philosophy has always been this: do the right thing but leave the big things to those with big ambitions.

When I got into this programme, I figure that I’ll be able to learn more about leadership.  Thankfully, I’ve met many people with impressive portfolio; young politicians and corporate executives who have founded or co-founded organisations or other miscellaneous community projects. I learn that these individuals do not sit and wait for others to solve issues faced by their communities. They get out from their comfort zone and do something about it. Not only do these individuals want to see a change in their communities, they want to be a part of that change.

At the same time, I also discover that in order to be defined as a leader here, one often needs to be seen as a leader; the one who asserts him/herself forward, the one who gets him/herself noticed and the one who is competitive enough to want to be recognised as a leader. These are aspects of leadership which I have never felt comfortable with.

Throughout my stay in St. Louis, I’m forced to ask myself these questions:

“If I don’t want to appear on the television, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

“If I don’t care enough about meeting very important or influential people, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

“If I don’t care about being photographed with important people, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

“If I don’t want to give a speech in public, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

After much pondering, my answers to all the above questions are an affirmative no. I realise that in order to be a good leader, I need to stay true to myself. There comes a time when I need to be honest and courageous enough to make a stand on what are the things I will support or need to do and what not. Leadership is not just about “being out there” but also about making the right decisions, no matter how tough they are, and taking necessary actions to implement those decisions.

When my best friend asked me over Skype what I’ve learned from the programme, I told her that most of the people I’ve met here inspire me to get out from my own comfort zone and start thinking about what I want and can do for my community. I told her that I’ve always wanted to run a non-profit organisation which provides youths with a platform to have their voices heard and to become more socially responsible within their own communities and I would like to see this vision coming to fruition.

So, by being in this programme, I think I’m able to see the reincarnation of that thirteen year old girl again. Hopefully, I’ll be able to have the courage she had by standing up in the midst of a crowd to advocate for what is right without fea

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sex, drugs and HIV/AIDS

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 9 November 2010. Below is the original version.

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It was another quintessential night in Chow Kit; hot, humid, red and reeking with the thick smell of danger for those who would shun the district. Celeste, Joanna, Samantha and Lola lined the street of Lorong Haji Taib. In between small chats with each other, they call out indiscriminately to men walking by; teasing them unabashedly in their deep hoarse voices. For those who bother to play along, they are rewarded with flying kisses.

The night was slow but not devoid of excitement. Just as the night, they came slowly and quietly for them. They are ambushed by a group of uniformed policemen. Lola and Samantha manage to escape. Celeste and Joanna are quickly handcuffed and brought to the police station.

Less than 24 hours later, Celeste is released. Joanna? Dead. But not before being forced to perform sexual favours on the commanding officer while being restrained by his two subordinates. They eventually “finish” her off by applying multiple blows to her skull when she refuses to let them take her from behind.

Joanna never had a chance.

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Celeste returns with a mission. She saw what they did to Joanna and vowed never to end up as another unclaimed corpse. She pleads with her friends to stand united and fight for their honour and lives. Together, they vow never to be silent again.

Celeste’s blood-chilling and piercing cry, “Joanna dah mati!” would echo in their minds forever.

It may not be as real as Poh Si Teng’s acclaimed documentary “Pecah Lobang”, a Freedom Film Fest winner in 2008, but that was the script used by the Bar Council MyConstitution Campaign team to send out a strong message to sex workers and Mak Nyahs at the Jom ke Chow Kit Carnival at Lorong Haji Taib on 31 July 2010.

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Above: The MyConstitution Campaign team

It took the team a few days to put together the skit but not without first spending hours after hours debating and deciding on a suitable yet effective message. Most of the team members were lawyers but none of them knew what sort of message would make an impact on one of the oldest professions in the world.

Lawyers are useful when it comes to giving advice on what to do when one is being arrested but what can they tell a highly stigmatised community who not only are prime targets of the police and religious authorities, but also vulnerable to abuse and violence?

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That was when the team decided to tell the story of Joanna, a transsexual sex worker who died in police custody.

The message was simple. It is louder when four persons scream at the same time than just one. The chances of being heard are higher if you continue to scream. Sooner or later, someone will hear you.

The crowd responded. They laughed and cheered when they saw Celeste, Joanna, Samantha and Lola blowing kisses in the air. The atmosphere turned sombre and quiet when Joanna was being tortured by the officers. Some wore grave expressions on their faces as they watched Celeste bringing news of Joanna’s death and crying out in anguish. They clapped thunderously when the girls came together and agreed to do something about it.

The image of helpless Joanna being forced to face her opponents alone is more real than imagined. Most of us are aware of the discrimination and injustice faced by the community of sex workers, yet we choose to keep silent and stay ignorant of it. While we will readily acknowledge the right to live, life without dignity and justice is not a life worth living.

The organiser, the PT Foundation (PTF), is to be commended for providing an opportunity and platform for people living with HIV/AIDS, sex workers, drug abusers, men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM), gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people to learn more about their rights and HIV/AIDS. Combating HIV/AIDS is after all one of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

According to the Ministry of Health’s statistics in 2009, there are 86,000 reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Malaysia. Everyday, 15 Malaysians are diagnosed HIV positive and the majority of them are men. 34% are in their twenties. The high-risk groups are surprisingly not sex workers, drug users or homosexuals. They are fishermen, factory workers, long distance drivers, housewives and heterosexuals.

Jeremy

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Speaking to Jeremy provided a sense of comfort and assurance. He came across as someone who is wise and easy to talk to; and he is a gay man who occasionally also drags or crossdresses as a woman in special functions such as at the Jom ke Chow Kit Carnival.

Jeremy works towards educating and sensitising people on the importance of safe sex, sexuality and self-acceptance - all the right qualities to help fulfil PTF’s objectives.

I first spotted Jeremy when he was standing in front of the stage with a microphone in his hand. He was giving out a series of HIV/AIDS related trivia. It was difficult not to notice him as he was dressed in a black body-hugging t-shirt, hot pants, black stockings and Mary Jane shoes. In addition to his thick make-up, he was a picture of confidence and determination as he asked the crowd, “Can you get HIV/AIDS by holding someone’s hands?” while loud pumping techno beats were playing on the background.

Later in a private interview, Jeremy disclosed that he had come a long way before his family and friends accepted his sexuality. He was reluctant to call this episode in his life a problem but preferred to see it as a challenge instead. He added that at the end of the day, what’s really important is for a gay person to come to terms with his own sexuality, first. But it is important to take the time to figure out who he really is before arriving at that critical juncture.

When asked whether he faced any discrimination while growing up as a homosexual, he answered no. He explained that Malaysia is that sort of country where you would not get into trouble if you do not tell. An example is how PTF is not allowed to publicly inform people that they provide counselling to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender (GLBT) people. They may only call it “sexuality counselling”.

He also said that while law enforcement authorities do not harass PTF directly, they face many obstacles when trying to implement their HIV/AIDS education and prevention programme for sex workers in massage parlours, karaoke lounges, motels and nightclubs. These places are raided by anti-vice enforcement officers and too often in the presence of PTF, which consequently prevents the businesses from wanting to engage with PTF.

When asked who his hero is, Jeremy declares that he is his own inspiration. His father once told him in an acceptance speech, “Whatever you do, you’re an adult now. You’re responsible for your own life.” He said that it is important for everyone to be themselves because in the end, it is up to each individual to find out who they are and to grow comfortably into their own shoes.

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Such positive self-image was unfortunately not seen in Eddie, a 39 year-old former drug user. He was seen sitting alone at the back of a tent, quietly colouring his face with bright blue paint.

When I asked him what he was doing at the Carnival, he insisted that I would not be able to stomach his answer. “If I tell you, you won’t be able to take it. So, I rather not say anything,” he said to me again and again and all the while avoiding eye contact.

After some coaxing, he revealed that he is HIV positive. He said most people who learned about his condition would run away. We ended up having a long chat about his life story.

According to Eddie, he started using drugs when he was 15-years old. His family moved to Kuala Lumpur from a small village in Negeri Sembilan. He experienced culture shock and was not able to adapt to city life. Due to existing family problems, he experimented with drugs and it subsequently became a means of escape for him.

He spent most of his adult life in and out of prison and rehabilitation in Sungai Buloh and Kajang. He still remembers starving in prison where inmates were under-fed and often resorted to eating left over fish bones and banana peels. When asked whether he was ever physically abused by prison guards, he replied, “Only if you disobey them. That’s all I’m willing to say.”

He said many inmates died in rehabilitation due to their weak and frail physical conditions, mostly pronounced by poor nutrition. Like him, most of them had no families or friends who would miss their absence. The moment they all discovered how low they had sunk, they would drop out of their lives.

Eddie added, “It hurts. It hurts greatly to see how they looked at me with disgust. Once when I came out of rehab, I had the will to turn over a new leaf. I really wanted to change my life. When I got home, my mother and sisters were busy cooking the whole day. Do you know why? They had planned to feed me well and then send me away for good. I never saw them again.”

When asked whether he is afraid of death, he paused briefly before admitting that he is more afraid of dying a painful death and being alone.

I asked him whether he ever regretted his actions that have led him to this situation, he answered bitterly, “Of course! Who would want to live like this? Because of my health condition and medical treatment, I’m feeling sick all the time. I can’t find work and I have no money or friends.”

Access to assistance

That night, 40 people were arrested by the police on their way to the Carnival which incidentally, was endorsed by the Ministry of Health. They were apparently tested for drugs. As fellow columnist, June Low wrote in her blog, thanks to the police, these 40 individuals missed out on a chance to learn more about the risk of HIV/AIDS.

There is something fundamentally wrong when people are being stopped from having access to help. It is morally sinful when people are being deprived of such an opportunity.

Is it because they are different? Is it because they are considered as moral pariahs?

It is time to ask ourselves these questions.

What makes these people different from us? What makes them so contemptible that we allow them to fight their battles alone? Does that not make us even more contemptible for not coming to their defence?

Finally, how many of us actually give ourselves to others without expecting anything in return; whether it is for love, sex, financial security, companionship, procreation or power?

Answer this truthfully and you’ll know that we are all the same in the end.

I asked Eddie what keeps him alive.

He replied, “What keeps me going is that every year I vow to change my life for the better. I vow to take my methadone and anti-retroviral treatments more diligently. I vow to secure a job to keep me financially independent. I’ll be 40 soon and I think there’s hope. After all, isn’t it true what the Western people say about life beginning at 40?”

The question is: will he live to see that change?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Many days and weeks later: Silence of the Lim

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I blame it on the hotel suite at the Residence Inn, Marriott and the Office of License Collector in St. Louis. The day I moved into the suite, unpacked my 2 suitcases and began to make myself feel at home, that was the day when I stopped blogging.

It’s like when I saw all my clothes hanging on the wardrobe rack, arranged in the order of warm, formal, work and casual; and the rest folded neatly away in the countless of drawers in the bedroom, I kind of sub-consciously told myself that there is no urgency to pen down my daily journal as religiously as when I was in Washington DC.

Yeah, a bedroom suite with ample of storage space and living out of a suitcase is bad.

Picture above: The St. Louis City Hall

On top of that, living the unaccustomed life-style of a “foreign dignitary” (believe me, I wouldn’t like to be referred to as that but for Michael and Charlotte who insist on calling us that), courtesy of our hosts at the Office of License Collector, has made it impossible for me to keep track of what had happened in the last few weeks. By the time I wanted to blog about something new that had happened on the day before, it had become old news.

At the risk of sounding as if I am having too much of a good time (although I insist on calling them socio-cultural activities), I’m just going to provide a very summarised version of some memorable events that had taken place, or will be taking place:

  • Attend the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) luncheon at the Renaissance Hotel;
  • Field passes to watch the St. Louis RAMS versus San Diego CHARGES game at the Edward Jones Dome;
  • Attend the 100 Black Men masquerade ball at the Hyatt River Front Hotel;
  • Attend Sunday service at the Prince of Peace Church;
  • Shopping at Macy’s, Saks @ 5th Avenue, the Mills, etc.
  • Dining at various local eateries and soul food;
  • Attend the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) gala at the Millennium Hotel;
  • VIP seats for America’s Got Talent live show at the Fox Theater;
  • Going up the Gateway Arch;
  • St. Louis Zoo at Forest Park;
  • St. Louis Science Centre;
  • Live jazz and blues at BB’s, South Broadway;
  • Trip to Jefferson City, capital of Missouri State;
  • Trip to Chicago;
  • Attend Friday Shabbat at the Temple of Emmanuel;
  • Attend the Rally for Sanity, Gateway Arch.
  • Halloween with the St. Louis BLUES hockey team against Atlanta THRASHERS at the Scottrade Centre;
  • Visiting legendary baseball player Lou Brock at his home; and

the list can go on…..

Wonder whether I do any work or serious stuff at all? Of course, I do. Who am I kidding?

In addition to the countless of meetings with government and elected officials, non-profit and business communities, I have been working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for Eastern-Missouri on their campaign to push for the passing of a State Bill to bring the police from state to local control of what is known as Proposition L (Prop L). A referendum on Prop L will be carried out simultaneously at the mid-term election next Tuesday.

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Above: A rally that was held outside the St. Louis City Hall in conjunction with National Day Against Police Brutality on 22 October 2010

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Above: Doing some community work with Mission Continues, a non-profit organisation which aims to help former war veterans to find purpose and meaning in their lives again.

And if you think some of these activities are not serious enough, here’s a photo which will prove it.

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Standing on the glass floor at the top of the Willis Tower (formerly known as Sears Tower), Chicago, has got to be some serious stuff, man!

Anyway, I’ve already got some articles planned for my TMI column. Do watch out for that.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo on the left, courtesy of CW Lim.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The World’s Worst Spouse

This was first posted on The Malaysian Insider on 11 October 2010.

If there is a competition for the world’s best spouse, I’ll be stuck at the bottom two with Ike Turner.

“Why do you say that?” my husband asked when I read this line aloud.

Sounding a bit too sorry for myself, I answered, “It has nothing to do with you. It’s me. I’m just horrible to be around.”

“Well, why is that?” He wanted to know since it wasn’t the time of the month.

“Nothing is working! I’m tired of every single thing; the bank’s incompetency, the traffic, the bloody noise outside our windows, the brainless drivers on the roads. Sometimes I get so tired of trying to deal with stupid people doing stupid things that I become this horrible monster who’s ready to tear anyone apart! It has nothing to do with you. Just let me rant, OK?”

He looked at me sympathetically and said, “OK, but don’t say you’re the world’s worst spouse ‘cause you’re not.”

I was left burning with my own thoughts as he walked out of the room quietly.

For the past few months, I’ve been experiencing what I call “being-on-an-overtime-job-and-home-for-too-long” syndrome. After working on a demanding public campaign for close to a year, I am feeling rather burnt out. In addition to this, what’s left of my energy has been spent mostly on sorting out my own personal affairs and to rectify mistakes made by service providers who are not only completely clueless of what it means by customer service, but also don’t seem to care too much for it.

Bottom line is, I have been spending most of my waking hours away from work fighting. I have fought with a waiter who told me that I could not use my credit card because the system was down and another who neglected to return my five sen worth of change simply because he unilaterally decided that I wouldn’t mind.

I have fought with a taxi driver who decided to pick up another passenger on the way without my consent. I have fought with my bank for mistakenly deleting my record on their computer system and a hospital staff for failing to call me up when I left my medical reports behind.

I also fought with the only good electrician I knew who made me wait without feeling remorse or shame for three hours. A sincere apology would have flushed away any ill feelings.

Hence, I am constantly irritated whenever my husband asks for my help to sort out some administrative matters with local service providers as he doesn’t speak the local language and still finds it difficult to understand Manglish.

The thing is, if I encounter bad service in another country, which I most certainly did during my travels, I would have been more forgiving and patient in trying to deal with them. I would shrug it off and convince myself that there is nothing I can do but to accept those flaws as part and parcel of life.

But not in Malaysia. No siree!

I keep riling myself up at the slightest mishap; whether they are being carried out intentionally or not, simply because I witness every day, in and out, how badly we’re doing in every aspect of our service sector. There is so much more room for improvement and yet not many of us have the will to push for these improvements. I hear people constantly moaning about how bad a service is but yet they do nothing about it and then wonder why the service continues to be bad.

Perhaps it is true when older people often say that we tend to be tougher on people whom we love. I am more tolerant and patient when confronted by poor customer service in other countries but not in my own. Contrary to what many people may believe or think, I love this country so much so that I’m allowing my blood pressure to rise every time I try to make Malaysians account for their mistakes.

“These carrots are bad!” I shrieked as soon as I tasted the acidity of a deceitful stick of baby carrot on its way out. “We should take it back to the store and demand for a replacement or get our money back,” I suggested to my husband.

“What? Waste fuel just to complain about a bag of carrots that cost less than three ringgit? Are you mad?” He slammed my suggestion down despite knowing how much this kind of thing usually annoys me.

“But how else would people know that they’re not supposed to sell expired goods if we don’t say something? You know this is not the first time it has happened. All you ever know is to complain but what are you going to do about it? I’m sick and tired of people thinking that they can get away with anything. I am even more tired of people who allow others to think it’s perfectly ok to give sub-standard services!” I screamed out in exasperation.

Like most spoiled brats I have encountered, their annoying habits are mostly manifested from the absence or lack of discipline and reproach from adults around them. That is my theory anyway and the same applies to how we, as Asians, rather stay mum than confront or find faults in others. We allow people to get away with bad habits and mediocrity while we complain behind closed doors.

My husband just shook his head and tossed the bag of carrots into the bin. That signalled the end of our discussion while I continued to stay irritated for the rest of the night.

Perhaps I am difficult, nasty and arrogant to many people but in all fairness, I do give credit when it’s due. I show my appreciation when I am pleased with a service. I tip generously when I’m satisfied that a waiter or waitress has made sure that all my dining needs have been attended to with a pleasant disposition.

I will salute and treat a policeman who does not take bribes respectfully. I will be generous with my compliments and encouragement when I know that the person sitting behind the counter has tried very hard to solve a problem I raised.

Recently I was hosted by a religious organisation in Kinarut, Sabah. The hospitality and courtesy extended to me were both abundant and unconditional. This was not the first time I had been given the royal treatment. It was the same in Kedah and Sarawak. My hosts had countless times humbled me when I think about how good traditional values such as kindness, generosity, selflessness and politeness are no longer practised in Kuala Lumpur.

It is not often one gets to be humbled or inspired by city folks. Whether you agree or not, I find it easy to unleash the demons in me when I’m in Kuala Lumpur. I have lost count of the number of times when I feel like taking a baseball bat and swing it at a bunch of ruthless boys speeding back and forth along the road outside my windows with their modified exhaust pipes.

I have heard comments from different people about how scary I can be when I am annoyed and upset about something. When my husband told me yesterday that I’m turning into someone we both know, who is critical of everything, I was stunned and it silenced me for a long time. I was shocked to learn that I may have turned into someone I despise and I asked myself these questions repeatedly: What and who created this ugly monster in me? And how do I get rid of it?

Monday, October 11, 2010

DAY 7 & 8: Leaving Washington DC to St. Louis, Missouri

 

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DAY 7: Preparing for our fellowship

After nearly a week of orientation in Washington DC, it’s time for all of us to be deployed to our respective state hosts. The Indonesians are going to Mississippi, the Filipinos, Atlanta and Malaysians to St. Louis. Just as I was getting used to living in Washington DC (and of course with still so many more places to explore; the Smithsonian museums in particular, but who’s keeping count, eh?), it was time to leave and I was feeling rather melancholy. The good news is, we’re coming back after 4 weeks.

We spent half a morning with Kristin at the Club Quarters Hotel conference room. She briefed us on our respective fellowship schedules and miscellaneous assignments we’re expected to do during that period of time. Then, we were off to Capitol Hill for a quick tour.

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Top left: On the way to Capitol Hill through an underground tunnel for staff.

Top right: The delegates taking pictures of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s entrance to Congress.

As usual, I was not disappointed although it was crowded with visitors and we had to rush through the tour. The highlights were definitely the 15-minute video called E Pluribus Unum, Latin for “One From Many” (found on the US 1 dollar bill) and the inside of the Rotunda (see picture below) which took my breath away. The video seeks to illustrate the historical background of the American Congress (House of Representatives) and its significance.

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I thought the video was insightful and inspiring at the same time. If there’s one thing I’m learning from the Americans; it’s that they do know how to run a fantastic campaign and to “sell their products”. By the end of the video, I was convinced that the American Congress is the greatest democratic institution and serves as a strong and proud model for the rest of the world despite being told by many, how disappointed and upset the Americans are with their present Congressmen and women. I believe their success lies in two main factors; lots of money and getting the best team to run the campaign.

I then went to the new US Supreme Court which was originally housed in Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, it was closing in 15 minutes and I had to rush through the whole building. I thought I could squeeze the national zoo on the way back but instead I went to watch a new documentary called Waiting for Superman by the same producer that did An Inconvenient Truth. The documentary is about the declining quality and standard of public schools in America.

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Above: The US Supreme Court. On the top front of the Greco-Roman building, it’s written Equal Justice Under Law.

I could see that the American audience is more interactive than in Malaysia. They would respond to what’s being presented in front of them on the silver screen. For example, the audience applauded, expressed their disgust and sighed out loud at appropriate moments throughout the documentary. They were appalled to see thousands of children being entered into lottery  so that they would stand a chance, regardless of how remote it may be, of getting into a good school with very limited spaces. While I acknowledge that it’s sad state of an affair, I couldn’t help but think how Malaysians have been robbed of a good education for decades and nobody would have dared to make a documentary about it if they are not prepared of the possibility of government reprisal.

When I was waiting for my popcorn before entering the theater, the guy behind the counter asked what movie I was going to watch. As soon as I said “Waiting for Superman”, his reaction was, “Oh really? Why?!!” Taken aback, I asked whether there was something wrong with the documentary. He looked around and once he was satisfied that no one else was around, he slipped a printed piece of paper to me and urged me to read it. As it turned out, the paper is Rick Ayers’ criticism of the points asserted by the documentary. You can read it here. And this is what I call a healthy and robust democracy – allowing people to express their point of views and then to have others rebut it based on facts, research and study. And, nobody dies from this.

For our last night in Washington DC before we return again in 4 weeks’ time, Rajiv and I hit Adams Morgan. It is a vibrant area where the clubbing scene is. The roads were filled with people ready to party all night long. There was also a bunch of people protesting against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) while being observed by policemen. We went to have dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant. Since I lived in Ethiopia for almost a year, I can tell that the food is not as authentic or delicious as the real thing, but it was sufficient to remind me of a place I once loathed in the beginning and learned to love in the end. (The injera still looked like folded tea towels which made me laugh.)

Day 8: Living like a VIP in St. Louis

Upon arrival at the airport, we were greeted by a tall, handsome and well-dressed man, and a jovial and warm woman. Michael McMillan, License Collector for the City of St. Louis, and Charlotte Ottley, Michael’s assistant, will be our hosts for the next 4 weeks.

When we finally secured our luggage and stepped onto the tarmac, I was stunned to see a long black limousine waiting for us by the sidewalk across the street. The first thought that came to my mind was this: “How on earth are we ever going to live up to this?” You see, Michael, Charlotte and two more individuals from St. Louis who are yet to be identified, will be visiting Malaysia in December. This is part of the ACYPL exchange programme.

I was rather distracted by the whole “grand gestures” (Benedicto will smile if he reads this) that I failed to notice my surrounding. I definitely notice the number of whiskey carafe in front of me and the fact that Charlotte and Michael were sitting way at the back that it was probably impolite for me to raise my voice so that I could talk to them.

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I was also stunned when I saw our accommodation for the next 4 weeks. We were all placed in a double bedroom suite at the Marriott Residence Inn and since I’m the only woman, I get a whole suite to myself. Not only that, Charlotte had prepared a welcome pack for each of us and I must confess that tears came to my eyes as I opened the bag that is filled with all sorts of wonderful girlie stuff. I told Michael that I felt as if I’m in America’s Next Top Model and he laughed. All in all, Michael and Charlotte’s generosity  and hospitality were beyond comparison and nothing that I have quite experienced before.

We had a few hours of rest before being picked up by a polite and nice gentleman named McFarlene Duncan. McFarlene works in Michael’s office and he was to accompany us to a black tie fundraising event for the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity of the Epsilon Lambda Chapter of St. Louis at the Marriott Hotel at Union Station. I must confess that I was dreading it, especially when I was ill prepared in the wardrobe department. Thankfully, my turquoise silk kebaya was a huge success as I received appreciative comments by the women there. Everyone looked dignified and handsome in their tuxedos and evening gown. Michael of course, looked dashing and I smiled when I saw this video on You Tube.

Now, if you really know me, you’ll also know that I’m actually shy and uncomfortable in formal and high society-type events. I’m especially bad when it comes to striking up interesting conversations, networking with important people and putting a spotlight on myself so that I’ll get noticed. I tend to shy away from this but I’ll always remember what Mom tells me, “As an adult, you’ll need to learn to do all sorts of things which you don’t like. It’s called responsibility.” The other thing which I constantly tell myself is to always give something a chance before making any conclusion and as it turned out the night was fun, interesting and I was glad that we were invited to attend.

We were honoured to meet so many interesting people and with those who received awards for their contributions to their local communities. I learned a lot about the American culture of fraternity and sorority. I also learned about how people do fundraising event and above all, I learned that all African Americans can sing (not that it’s a secret if you watch American Idol but I just didn’t know how many they would be).

I don’t know what to expect come Tuesday when we finally start our fellowship. I must confess that I wait for it with great anticipation but not without trepidation. It seems that people here have such great expectations of us and I hope we won’t disappoint them.

Thank you Michael, Charlotte, McFarlene and everyone else who have welcomed us to St. Louis with style, warmth and kindness.